Interview: Caroline Bos

In August 2012, Caroline Bos of UNStudio (Netherlands) was in Australia as a guest speaker for the Melbourne School of Design. She spoke with Anna Tweeddale about the shifting ground of architectural practice.

Unusually for an architectural practice, the first project realized by Caroline Bos and Ben van Berkel was a large bridge connecting two parts of the city of Rotterdam. They have since founded UNStudio (United Network Studio), which has placed itself at the forefront of knowledge-driven architectural practice. Co-founder Caroline Bos recently visited Melbourne in a dual capacity – as a juror for the Flinders Street Station Design Competition and as a newly appointed professorial fellow at the University of Melbourne – thus marking the beginning of an exciting ongoing dialogue between UNStudio and the city of Melbourne.

Anna Tweeddale: The Flinders Street Station Design Competition is the first open international design competition that has been run in Melbourne for some time. Could you comment on what you think open design competitions have to offer to a city?

Architect Caroline Bos of UNStudio.

Architect Caroline Bos of UNStudio.

Image: Inga Powilleit

Caroline Bos: What I find interesting is what the expectations are for this competition and how to progress from there. Competitions can provide a wonderful momentum for the profession. During our time in practice – the last twenty years or so – there have been some competitions that were very exciting because they were seminal and generated incredible designs from both upcoming and established architects all over the world. The designs really showed the current state of architectural and urban thinking. So that kind of competition is of incredible benefit to the profession.

For a city you then get a whole range of possible solutions, directions and ideas that you can pick and choose from. It is incredibly gratifying to have that kind of summary of how the architectural profession is thinking about your problem. But it is also a challenge, because what do you do with it? There is never going to be one solution that is the best and that solves all your problems in one go, so I think when we are dealing with complex situations, and of course a station is always very complex, then the chance of coming up with one perfect solution that clearly beats all others is slim. I think the Flinders Street Station Design Competition is a kind of a hybrid of ideas and project competition, and the result is very realistic. I think it could be something that could be very helpful and interesting for all parties. It is not about there being a cut-off point, it is more about acknowledging the process and complexity.

Flinders Street Station ballroom interior.

Flinders Street Station ballroom interior.

AT: The role of competitions has been significant in the development of UNStudio. Did you participate in competitions from the outset? Was it a conscious strategy?

CB: At some point almost all of our work came through competitions. For a time, during the 1990s, that was the way for independent and non-corporate practices to acquire a body of work. I think, for instance, Daniel Liebeskind got all his work up through competitions only during that time. Competitions did provide an incredible springboard, but maybe this has changed. Maybe that is only from our point of view, though; it might just be a result of our practice developing. It wasn’t sustainable anymore, just acquiring a portfolio of work through competitions, but I think it is difficult to do that now anyway.

Our practice has actually done very few large open design competitions over the last few years because they are very unpredictable.

AT: Is it still important for emerging practices in Europe to be involved in competition work or do you think that is changing also?

CB: I think it is changing but it is also locally very diverse. For instance, in Germany there are a lot of local competitions; ­­everything happens through competitions. The only way for architects to win public work is to participate in them, but then you can get very generic competition results. Because of the investment of time required, the ability to produce a very specific design for a competition becomes limited if you have to do competition after competition. In Europe and across the world we are now seeing a tender process where you have to register your interest and are then selected on the basis of your experience and the size of your firm. This is something that is very problematic for emerging practices because they don’t yet have that experience; they don’t have the size and skill and so on. So I think we are at a moment in time where it is quite difficult for an emerging practice – they don’t have the same opportunities that we had. I don’t think that we would have made it if we had to start over.

AT: Right from the beginning UNStudio has engaged with a large variety of project types and scales, from architecture through to infrastructure projects. How intentional was this?

CB: It was very much intentional. We really resisted specialization; we don’t feel that that is what we are after and we don’t think it is interesting. I think that innovation and learning comes from being in contact with a lot of different questions, with seeing things overlap, and in seeing the same questions recurring at different scales in different contexts and situations. We always had a natural affinity for architecture as one of the last generalist disciplines. It is valuable to have this all-round practice. But it is still very much architecture-based; for instance, when we design a product we see it as part of the tradition of the architect designing a chair. We are not suddenly going to design a perfume bottle. At the moment we really articulate that as our policy; it has to be thought up as full-bodied work architecturally, like, for instance, the work of Alvar Aalto and the other masters who also had that consistency at different scales. That is what we aspire to.

AT: What do you see as the particular problems of infrastructure and what do architects bring to it?

CB: I think architects can bring to infrastructure a more complex contextual idea of it – seeing at an urban level, at the level of the experiential, how things relate to each other. With a bridge, for example, you can look at how the landing relates to the different city parts and what identity it can give to the surroundings. I think architects can interpret the question in various ways and add different layers of significance to the project, whereas maybe a structural engineer would primarily take up the challenge of the most efficient solution. We see efficiency as very important, but again on several levels, and ask, “What is the most efficient urban solution on a long-term basis, taking into account many different users, and many different interests? We therefore need to be critical of typology and function; these may and will change over time, making it important to consider issues such as flexibility and sustainability as intimately related. ”

AT: As you have said, “Understanding the problem behind the problem.”

Render of Arnhem Central Station, Netherlands.

Render of Arnhem Central Station, Netherlands.

CB: The example we learnt so much from in this respect is our project Arnhem Central, a new train station that is conceived as a transfer terminal embedded within a dense urban context derived from a policy of intensive ground use. As we studied the project potential, we realized that it was completely different from what everyone assumed. A traditional celebration of the railway station as an institutional, civic icon had long ago become superfluous. The research process revealed that the institution of the railways represented to some extent a very small interest, even as, in terms of land ownership and reputation, it was still rich and powerful. The question that decision makers were then faced with was: can that position not simply be translated into a business transaction, giving more say to interests that are activated daily through usage?

AT: UNStudio has a very strong research focus that has resulted in everything from patented products to publications. Can you explain the role that research plays in the studio and how it is integrated into or cultivated in your project work?

CB: We started formalizing these knowledge exchanges when we first started our studio, even as van Berkel and Bos. Every month we invited an artist or another kind of designer or philosopher – anyone who we came across who we think has something to offer – to give a lecture. We also have an annual internal conference just for ourselves to which we invite people. Then in the last three years or so we have had knowledge platforms in the studio. There are currently four or five active ones and they are focused on specific topics: sustainable knowledge platforms, smart parameters, innovative materials. Now, for instance, there is an active group studying knowledge spaces because we have been working on some universities, campuses and faculty buildings. “What are the new spaces of learning?” is a question we are focusing on a lot. These knowledge platforms are very informal; internally people can join one or more. We collect new knowledge but it has to be unique knowledge. We don’t just want to archive things or take things from the internet; it has to be specific, new knowledge. We engage through these platforms with universities or research institutions, sometimes in combination with maybe European subsidies or with companies who are interested in researching a specific question, and do research projects in that context.

This is the beginning of a new phase in our practice because we are now moving from network practice to knowledge network practice. It is not so much about the project anymore, it’s about the knowledge that you build up and the network then has to, as you said before, address the question behind the question. We need to bring together the knowledge that is relevant to that point in time and for this particular question. That kind of network is very sensitive to assemble: it is a job in itself to get together the forms of knowledge that are adequate and functioning.

AT: What do you feel are the most exciting challenges or possibilities at the moment for the architect?

CB: Not wasting valuable resources – that is the most important challenge. We have to be very aware of what we do now and how it impacts the future and how we make our choices much more consciously. Again, what architects can bring to that is a kind of rich understanding, not seeing it only in terms of materials but also seeing it in terms of longevity, of making buildings that are more flexible for future use. Not maximizing the benefits of one parameter only but seeing things as relational is a path towards sustainability. There are many other important issues, too, but I really would prioritize that.

AT: Do you feel generally optimistic about the possibilities for addressing these issues or are you uncertain about how we are going with that?

CB: From my personal point of view I do feel optimistic because I believe there are ways – it is possible. Of course, that is a choice that we all have to make individually but I think it is absolutely possible to work in architecture and urbanism in a way that makes positive contributions to local conditions and to people’s lives in places, and hopefully it makes those in a future-oriented way. Like everyone else I can feel less optimistic if I read newspapers, so it is a balance of being aware of the problems and the challenges. Still, if you don’t believe you can make a positive contribution anymore then I suppose you should retire.

AT: In this context, do you have any suggestions for emerging architects about where to find new footholds in this changing context?

CB: I find it difficult to put myself in a position of someone else and give them advice. I think even in this difficult time we are still lucky to have a great profession. It is wonderful to be involved in something that is created but you also work with people, you work with cities, you work with changes in society. There are so many aspects that you can enjoy and feel connected to. I also think that within that a whole diversity of practices is possible. I don’t want UNStudio to be a model practice. I think it is better for everyone to enjoy this great discipline in their own way.

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